Under the Skin (2014)Reviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 04/11/14 10:29:08
If I were forced to give a one-line description of "Under the Skin," I probably could do it but it would be of little use because doing so would wind up luring the wrong crowd in under a mistaken assumption of what was in store for them while putting off the very people who might actually spark to the decidedly unique surprises that it has in store for viewers. Yes, it has a premise that sounds like a cross between the 80's-era freakout "Lifeforce" and a late-night Skinemax programmer and, as you may have heard, affords viewers numerous glimpses of one of Hollywood's sexiest actresses in the altogether but this is not a silly exploitation romp by any means. In fact, this is one of the oddest, eeriest and trippiest films to hit screens in a long time and one that subverts audience expectations at virtually every turn. The result is a film will assuredly polarize viewers but whether they love it or hate it--and there is virtually no chance of a middle ground on this one--it is one that they will not be forgetting anytime soon.Scarlett Johansson, in a role that couldn't be further from her current turn in "Captain America," stars as an alien from an unknown world who has been sent to Earth--Glasgow, Scotland, to be exact--on a mission. Assuming human form, she drives around in a van and strikes up conversations with single men that usually begin with a request for directions and soon delve into more flirtatious banter. In some cases, she takes them back to her house where they, now in a trance, follow her into a vast black expanse that she walks atop of, stripping all the while, while they sink beneath the floor into a void and disappear forever. This continues for a while but as her time on Earth progresses, she finds her initial sense of passivity fading away and begins to develop a certain moral sense that leads her to begin to question her mission. However, there are others from her world around as well who are determined to see that she does her duty and eventually she finds herself going from being the pursuer to the pursued.
Like I said, the basic premise of "Under the Skin" makes it sound like the usual sci-fi silliness with a soupçon of sex added to the recipe for some added zest but right from its hallucinatory opening images, there is no mistaking it for any other example of the genre with the possible exception of the Nicolas Roeg cult favorite "The Man Who Fell to Earth." Instead of trying to dazzle the eye with overblown special effects while numbing the brain with convoluted mythologies and backstories, director Jonathan Glazer, whose previous films "Sexy Beast" and "Birth" were also unusual take on familiar genre tropes, has taken the Michael Faber book and transformed it into a singularly eerie mood piece, practically Kubrickian in tone, that is all the more memorable for how it strips away audience preconceptions and forces them to look at the seemingly familiar in new and unexpected ways. With the aid of such elements as the distinct visual style provided by and the equally trippy sound design, Glazer takes things that should seem perfectly ordinary and makes us see just how fragile those surfaces are and how dark and terrifying they can be when seen through unfamiliar and uncomprehending eyes. Trust me, life on Earth in this film is no day at the beach--in fact, the scene in this film that actually depicts a day at the beach is one of the creepiest and most unnerving sequences that I have ever seen.
Some of the best scenes in the film occur in the early going, the point where we--like the alien at its center--are gradually beginning to understand and get acclimated to our new and relatively unusual surroundings. In them, we see Scarlett Johansson navigating the streets of Glasgow from behind the wheel of her van and interacting with the people that she encounters along the way. These scenes have a loose and unforced spontaneity to them that is very difficult to create and maintain in a narrative film--it feels more like we are watching a documentary unfold right before our eyes. As it turns out, that is almost exactly what we are seeing in those scenes--it turns out that Glazer hid cameras and microphones everywhere and sent Johansson out into a public that had no idea that a movie was being shot or that they were talking with one of the most popular actresses of the day until the "scenes" were finished and they were asked to sign releases. Even if you don't know the particulars of the production, these scenes are startlingly effective in the way that they present the familiar in a odd and disquieting manner that mirrors the film's main character. (I had the chance to interview Glazer and asked how often the shooting of scenes fell apart once the other "actors" recognized Johansson and he remarked that it didn't happen too often because it never dawned on them that it was her--after all, why would Scarlett Johansson be driving down the streets of Glasgow in a beat-up van asking for directions?)
Following her memorable work in "Her," in which she delivered one of the great performances of last year using nothing but her voice, Johansson goes the opposite way here with a largely silent turn that relies more on her physical presence than on smart dialogue. Her work here is incredible in the way that she quietly and effectively presents herself as an entity that is still trying to get the lay of the land--physically, emotionally and geographically--while managing to project the kind of quietly smoldering sensuality to lure unsuspecting men into her trap. To add on to all of that, she has to converse with people that she has never seen before while staying in character and keeping the scene going. This is the kind of cinematic high-wire act that would give most actresses pause--and this isn't even including the nudity factor, which is for once actually necessary for the proceedings--and Johansson proves herself to be more than up to the challenge. This is arguably the best work she has ever done on screen and if she can somehow maintain a balance between blockbuster fare like "Captain America" and more offbeat projects like this, she could wind up having one of those careers that legends are made of.
Although "Under the Skin" is one of the very best films of a year that has already contained a surprising amount of winners but I have sneaking suspicion that this will be one of those films that divides critics and audiences alike. Yes, it contains sex, violence, a big star and a classic sci-fi premise but it delivers those familiar elements in such unfamiliar and oftentimes unsettling ways that many viewers may find themselves rebelling against it for its refusal to play by the rules. To such people, "Under the Skin" may indeed come across as a colossally unpleasant, unsatisfying and wildly pretentious bore of galactic proportions. To be honest, I can't really argue with such a viewpoint because this is clearly not the kind of movie that has been dumbed down and has had all of its rough and offbeat edges smoothed away in the hopes of attracting the broadest audience possible.No, this is a darker, stranger and more personal creation that is content to go its own distinct way no matter the cost--it may be cheese in its basics but it is of the decidedly artisanal variety as opposed to the mass-market Velveeta out there. It may not be for everyone but if you can somehow latch on to its peculiar wavelength, there is an excellent chance that you will be as knocked out by it as I was.
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